Next week, for the first time since his swearing in, new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will address the world at the United Nations. How does he differ from his firebrand predecessor and what might that tell us about his relations with the West?
While it may seem counterintuitive based on the pair’s politics, President Hassan Rouhani has been a part of the inner circle of governance in the Islamic Republic since even before its founding while former President Ahmadinejad entered the presidency as a relative neophyte to the upper echelons.
Former President Ahmadinejad was a relative outsider when ascending to the presidency. Ahmadinejad had previously held only one previous position of moderate importance within the regime, as the unelected (appointed) mayor of Tehran. Rather than holding high ranking positions, he had previously spent time as an academic and politician in the country’s hinterlands. The former president used this relative obscurity as a centerpiece of his campaign, emphasizing his modest upbringing (he is the son of a blacksmith) and populism. This rural and impoverished base of support continued even in the darkest days of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, after many regime insiders had turned their backs on him.
By contrast, according to his memoirs, at just 18, as a young seminary student, President Rouhani snuck across the border with Iraq to meet the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. This would be the beginning of a relationship that would span the rest of Khomeini’s life, including Rouhani’s membership in the ayatollah’s entourage during his final days in exile. In addition to, or perhaps as a result of, this position in the country’s inner circle, Rouhani has held a variety of vitally important political and religious positions including mujtahid (an official interpreter of questions of Shia Islam in Iran), head of the Supreme National Security Council, and the country’s chief nuclear negotiator.
It is extremely well known that the president is nowhere near the most powerful man in Iran. This makes the relationship the president has with the actual power center, the supreme leader, of immense importance to any analysis of presidential politics. The difference between the former and current presidents in this respect could not be more stark. The above insider-versus-outsider distinction leads directly into the differences between the pair’s relationship with current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, with Ahmadinejad’s relationship souring throughout his tenure in sharp contrast to the decades-long relationship of Rouhani and Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad began his presidency as a darling of the Islamic Republic’s ultraconservative establishment. After cleansing Tehran of the reformist tendencies of past mayors, many believed he would become the mentor of the supreme leader. This relationship rapidly deteriorated, especially after the poorly rigged election of 2009. In contrast to Ahmadinejad’s first election where he was fully embraced by the supreme leader, the body language of the pair was awkward and fumbled as Khamenei refused to embrace the re-elected president. The relationship continued to sour throughout Ahmadinejad’s second term until boiling over in a public row over the president's cabinet and the wishes of the Supreme Leader in what analysts referred to as an “extraordinary moment in the history of the Islamic Republic.” This left Ahmadinejad in a problematic position for the remainder of his term.
President Rouhani, by contrast, has been a part of the Islamic Republic’s establishment since the revolution and is a well-known entity. His relationship with Khamenei has created unabashed support for the new president by the supreme leader. On Tuesday Khamenei fully endorsed diplomatic efforts by Rouhani, saying it was time for diplomacy over militarism and “heroic leniency.”
There are a variety of theories as to why the supreme leader “let” Rouhani win the presidency. One of the more popular hypotheses is that, as a known entity, Rouhani is not expected to attempt a power grab in the way that Ahmadinejad did. There are also those that believe his pragmatism is simply a necessary step after nearly a decade of a firebrand as president. In any event, the relationship between Rouhani and Khamenei has amounted to support of all of Rouhani’s reformist tendencies so far, including the appointment of a woman as one of his vice presidents, a diplomatic posture towards the West, and his administration's embrace of social media, all of which are extraordinary in the highest levels of Iranian governance.
Even the education of former President Ahmadinejad has contributed to his reputation as an outsider in Iranian politics while President Rouhani's education has made him an ideal member of the Islamic Republic’s inner circles from its earliest days.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad holds a Ph.D. in traffic and transport from the University of Science and Technology in Tehran. The former president also served as a lecturer at the university. It is not difficult to imagine that this educational background had very little to do with his ascendance to the presidency.
President Rouhani, on the other hand, has a coveted educational background in the Islamic Republic. Dr. Rouhani holds a Ph.D. in constitutional law from the Glasgow Caledonian University where he wrote his dissertation (though there are claims that he may have plagiarized significant portions of it) on the flexibility of Islamic law in dealing with a country’s governance. Rouhani was able to write such an elaborate dissertation and remain in the good graces of the ultraconservative religious establishment due to his background in theology, having previously studied at two prominent seminaries and under some of Shia Islam’s most important religious scholars.
The philosophies of the pair could not possibly be more polar opposites. While the former president has been known as a hard-line ultraconservative ever since his first forays into politics, the pragmatism of President Rouhani has earned him the nickname “the Diplomatic Sheikh.”
The politics of the former president have been well known going back to his days as the mayor of Tehran. During his tenure he gained notice of the Islamic Republic’s conservative establishment by rolling back some of the freedoms and liberties that had been advanced by the city’s former mayors. Ahmadinejad’s presidency was extremely conservative and included tremendous controversy over hardline stances. Among these was his vociferous Holocaust denial, anti-Western stance, his nuclear policy, and the vicious crackdown on dissent and protest during his tenure.
President Rouhani comes to the office with a reputation for compromise and a lack of hardline stances. This goes back to his days as a doctoral student, with the president writing his thesis at the Glasgow Caledonian University on the flexibility of Islamic law for governance. Rouhani also writes with pride in his memoirs of a smuggler bringing him across the Iraqi border to meet Ayatollah Khomeini and recommending that the now-president take off his turban to avoid being seen in the vehicle. While some hardliners may have refused, he quickly took it off, stating, “We arrived safely, and that is what mattered.” The evidence seems to suggest that this quote accurately describes his approach to governance as well.
While the differences between the pair’s stances on Iranian nuclear enrichment fall squarely under the wider umbrella of their hard-line versus pragmatic ideologies, the issue’s preeminence and their differing experiences demand greater attention. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency the nuclear issue was transformed into one of anti-Western pride and Iranian sovereignty while Rouhani’s history as the country’s lead nuclear negotiator has put his pragmatism on display.
In an all-too-representative speech, while preparing for one of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) nuclear negotiation sessions, Ahmadinejad stated that “the Iranian nation is standing firm on its fundamental rights and under the harshest pressure will not retreat an iota from its undeniable right." Further, he issued a warning, "On behalf of the Iranian nation, I advise the enemies and the arrogance (the United States) to change their behaviour towards our nation, and they should know that the Iranians are standing firm in defending their rights."
To the former president, Iranian nuclear enrichment was a vital form of protest against American hegemony. By continuing to thumb his nose at Western demands to cease enrichment he was protesting American dominance of foreign affairs.
Prior to ascending to the presidency, Rouhani served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator under reformist former President Khatami. During this period Rouhani was able to pull off one of the most significant moments of diplomacy in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear history. While the head nuclear negotiator, Rouhani was able to convince the supreme leader and the president to voluntarily suspend enrichment in an effort to foster goodwill and restart negotiations. Unfortunately, this deal would falter with rejection by the Bush administration and the election of the hardline Ahmadinejad.
Just as above, both Ahmadinejad and Rouhani's relationships with the West are rooted in their differing opinions on compromise. While Ahmadinejad served as one of the world’s great foils to American hegemony, Rouhani has expressed openness to re-opening the lines of communications between the two countries for the first time since 1979.
In 2006 President Ahmadinejad wrote a letter to American President George W. Bush laying out a variety of complaints. This document reads like a laundry list of anti-Western complaints with numerous references to “the Zionists” and the alleged duplicity of American foreign policy. Ahmadinejad spent his entire presidency as just such a foil to American hegemony, supporting and befriending other anti-Western leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. He also became a voice of outlandish anti-Western claims including accusing the West of creating the HIV virus to infect the developing world and create a market for big pharmaceuticals.
President Rouhani, ever the pragmatist, has in the past few days added to his diplomatic bona fides. After an exchange of letters following his election between him and President Barack Obama, it now seems there is a possibility that the two will meet at next week’s United Nations meetings. This would mark the first face-to-face meeting between Iranian and an American heads of state since the revolution in 1979. The possibility of this historic meeting has come from tremendous public diplomacy between the two presidents as well as Rouhani’s higher capacity for decision-making in Iran, due to his close relationship with the supreme leader.